Boardwalk Empire PREVIEW

Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson (pics: BSkyB)

Rating ★★★★★

Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 1 February, 9pm

New channel Sky Atlantic has a real bruiser of a series to get its launch some attention. Boardwalk Empire is gaudy, seductive and, like all sharp gangsters, right on the money.

The opening 90-minutes is particularly flash with the cash (a rumoured $20-odd million). The Martin Scorsese-directed episode is dazzling, a kaleidoscopic swoop through the vice-ridden adult playground that was Atlantic City at the launch of Prohibition.

Epic drama about the Roaring Twenties
This is an epic series with ambitions and themes that dwarf most dramas attempted in Britain or America. It’s about the birth of the gangster myth, about power and portraying that mad, glamorous, anything-goes era in American history, the Roaring Twenties. Crowd scenes, lavish sets, period detail and superb actors and writers make this an offer you can’t refuse.

Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt)

It’s the eve of the Volstead Act coming into effect. Crowds along the seafront of Atlantic City are celebrating – a giant bottle of hooch in a casket is mockingly given a New Orleans-style funeral send-off. The countdown to midnight commences, and the booze ban is celebrated in nightclubs with – what else? – the popping of champagne corks.

We meet Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson – Steve Buscemi in a Golden Globe-winning performance – the town’s treasurer, unofficial ruler, and man pledged to keep the booze flowing regardless.

Meet the boys – Al Capone and Lucky Luciano
Half unscrupulous politician, half gangster, he’s meeting some serious criminals from New York in the shape of Arnold Rothstein (play with menacing authority by Michael Stuhlbarg), Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and a nervy novice mobster in Al Capone (British actor Stephen Graham).

Nucky has the backing of his brother and town sheriff, Elias (Shea Whigham), and many ward bosses and local thugs. Another of the entourage is his driver, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a veteran of the Great War who, having escaped the horrors of France, is determined to cash in big style during peacetime.

Jimmy Darmody and wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino)

The opening episode offers a taste of complications to come for Nucky. Jimmy is dangerously ambitious and, with trigger-happy Al Capone, hijacks Nucky’s booze consignment for New York. The heist goes wrong, four men are killed and New York’s gangsters don’t get their valuable cargo.

Nucky’s personal life is also shifting. We first see him reducing members of a women’s temperance meeting to tears with an anecdote about the evils of booze. One of the audience, Margaret Schroeder (another Brit, Kelly Macdonald), seeks him out and asks if he could find her violent drunk of a husband some work. It’s a fateful encounter for the widower Nucky.

Scorsese’s operatic assassinations
Boardwalk Empire gets so many things right. There are Scorsese’s operatic assassination scenes, the ragtime soundtrack, and the brilliant storytelling. It does what the best US series manage brilliantly and British ones rarely do – inter-weaving complex characters into big historical events.

So Nucky is shrewd, tender, corrupt, humorous, insightful, ruthless and at times reckless. Though Buscemi bears little resemblance to the real Nucky, a grey-haired bear of a man, his performance is irresistible. His face always betrays to the audience the cynicism behind the politician’s lies, and no one enunciates the f-word more emphatically.

If looks could kill – Knucky’s not happy

At one point he questions the choice of a new name that one of his bootleggers has picked for himself. ‘A rose by any other name,’ Nucky says.

‘What does that mean?’ the bootlegger says.

‘Read a fucking book.’

Recreating the crazy age of Prohibition
Terence Winter, the Emmy-winning writer from The Sopranos (which is being re-shown on Sky Atlantic), is the series’ creator. HBO offered him the chance to conjure a drama from a book by Nelson Johnson about the seaside city’s corrupt history. To keep clear of Tony Soprano comparisons, Winter chose the Prohibition era as his subject, and it is a glamorous and wild time to watch.

From boxing contests between dwarfs, to seafront palmistry, the stunt of using the newly-invented baby incubator as a carnival attraction, and onto Eddie Cantor’s vaudeville act – it’s an unforgettable glimpse into the early Twentieth century.   

This series will have you rooting for the characters, wincing at the violence, laughing, and wanting to know more about this period in Atlantic City. TV drama hardly gets much better than this.

• Boardwalk Empire has a fantastic interactive site here.

Comments

  1. Sounds like another corker from HBO!! What always strikes me about their series is the huge ambition they have.. But it looks like they’re managed to top themselves with this one. What a shame Virgin aren’t carrying Sky Atlantic yet, I wannn see it!!

  2. Good Fellas set in the 1920’s. I watched it through to the 1st series end but it didn’t have one tenth the power of “The Killing”, which I understand consistently outperformed “Boardwalk Empire” in viewing figures.

    Steve Buscemi aside, most of the characters were bland, even in the most violent scenes.

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